What is the key problem with Islam’s theology? A Girardian answer.

What is really wrong with Islam?

How would Rene Girard answer this? He suggests an answer in passing in his book Battling to the End, but I’ll expand on it a bit.

Despite the fact that Islam upholds many truths about the one infinite creator God, its theology and practice on the ground level ultimately does not fundamentally undermine the scapegoat mechanism. This is the demonic machinery that keeps society glued together from age to age by periodically unifying the people against one sacrificial victim. The Gospel of Jesus Christ fatally cripples this system by revealing the victim to be innocent. Unfortunately, Islam ends up keeping it intact.

Islam persist throughout history by keeping its internal fighting to a minimum by the casting out of infidels. On a good day, the infidel just gets run out of town, expelled from the country, or defeated on the battlefield. On a bad day they get their throats slit by a neighbor. This keeps restless men effectively united against a common enemy. But what do you do when your nation is eventually virtually 100% Muslim? Who makes a good scapegoat then?

The answer is: wayward women. Here is the deal though – there usually aren’t enough actual wayward women to sacrifice to keep a lid on things. And so what happens? You have to invent wayward women! Before you may have had a genuine seductress that was sleeping around. But now you go after the daughter that is just suspected of having a boyfriend from the wrong clan. And I don’t mean that she’s been sleeping with him, but only that she’s met him for coffee a couple of times behind her family’s back. When the community in say, a village in Pakistan (where there is little secularized law enforcement) is desperate for a victim, this imaginary wayward woman will do the trick. An “honor killing” is then in order. Women fared better when their brothers were busy fighting in the army.

So who do we scapegoat now in the West? This is largely the function of celebrity worship/hate. While I am writing this, the scapegoat-of-the-week happens to be celebrity chef Paula Dean who was caught behaving badly. About this time a year ago it was Tom Cruise. A couple years before it was Tiger Woods. Whoever happens to be the U.S. President makes a good stand-in sometimes when it’s a slow news day. The folks of Westboro “Baptist Church” seem to enjoy putting themselves at risk.

The thing is, our culture, even though it’s largely secular and post-Christian, has had the scapegoat mechanism so undermined by centuries of the Gospel, that we can’t stomach blood anymore. People want Paula Dean fired, but not lynched. They want to see Obama (or Bush, or David Cameron if your a Brit) impeached, but not actually burnt at the stake in the national mall. Our blood is hidden. The actual lynching doesn’t unify us any more so it has to be kept under wraps. We prefer our enemies to be killed by drone strikes – keeping the executioners hands from smelling of iron. We dump a staggering 3,000+ babies in trash cans every single day, but we work very hard to keep that out of sight.

The Muslims mock our decadence and they are right to. The difference is that deep down, Christianity has the power (via the Holy Spirit and through philosophical tools) to truly, eventually, completely erode the sacrificial order and put and end to it. Our Abrahamic brethren are unfortunately unaccepting of the centrality of Jesus Christ and so the Satanic scapegoat mechanism persists. Of it there can be no end in that world.

As a final note, I will add that Girard warns Christians not to make Muslims their rivals and I wish to echo this. I have absolutely no desire to victimize my Muslim neighbors. To do so would be to fall into a grave trap. One of my daughter’s favorite playmates at school this past year was an Egyptian girl. I wished on several occasions that I could tell her parents that I liked and appreciated them, but words are awkward. All I could bring myself to do was smile and say hello in passing.

I am critiquing Islam in the abstract here. As a Christian, I naturally believe that turning to the worship of Jesus is, in some sense, a cure-all for any situation. When Muslim nations adopt Western human rights laws that, for example, protect women, they are indirectly receiving some side-effects of that cure. On the other hand, when they adopt some of our corrupt banking practices, they are only learning techniques to sweep things under the rug.

Red-letter tradition

There was a lot of push-back against the first Amharic bible translations. Why? No red ink! This had been a really key feature of the text for centuries – one that had been around so long in Abyssinia that to see a copy without it made the reader say, “What the heck is this? This can’t be scripture. How come God’s name isn’t highlighted?” A reasonable question if that is what you’d only ever seen. Feedback to the printing press operators was likely met with much groaning.


Problems in higher ed – a blast from the past

In Donald Crummey’s contribution to The Missionary Factory in Ethiopia, he writes of Birru Petros, a bright young Ethiopian man who was sent to Europe to study in 1858. He loved it at first, but eventually left after several years when the quality of instruction deteriorated. A letter he sent detailing his troubles sounds like it could have been written yesterday. He complains how the school is staffed by student teachers “who do not even know how to teach” and “two principals who do not like to teach.” He also comments, “Since they want to be successful with collective money from people by saying that an Abyssinian youth is studying in their school, I do not think they will discharge me soon.”

Sound familiar? Grad students teaching all the classes, lazy professors who like research but hate teaching, and a diverse student body maintained for political correctness points and fundraising. And this was over 150 years ago! Apparently, nothing is new under the sun once again.

Against hagiography

On page 1 of The Missionary Factor in Ethiopia, the editor Getatchew Haile dares to call modern Protestant missionary biographies for what they in fact are: hagiography.

Now he is not derisive and the book is not at all dismissive of their work. But he does point out something that fanboys of all ages are usually loathe to admit – their heroes are usually not as holy and amazing as we wish they were we should be honest and treat them as such. To do otherwise, I believe, is damaging to our witness.

Along those lines, if I hear one more “inspiring” sermon about how freakin’ amazing Jim Elliot was to get himself killed in the Amazon, I’m gonna scream. The guy was faithful and brave. That’s great! But that’s all. That’s all. His story just doesn’t get, in my opinion, as much mileage as the story of many other faithful men who aren’t told. It’s really hip to get speared by natives in the jungles of Ecuador while trying to preach Jesus to them and have a large network of people back home who care about your work. It’s not near as cool to get gang-raped in Iraq because they heard you were secretly a Christian. And nobody knows about it – not even your family. We talk about one far too much and the other hardly ever.

Someone might think that I’m all cynical about these stories. Not so. I really enjoyed reading about the Sudan Interior Mission a couple weeks ago. I admire those folks tremendously and also realize that they, in hindsight, made some bad decisions. Some unwittingly and some through failure of character. I think Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a true contemporary saint. People were shocked a few years back when some of her journals and letters were published and it was revealed that she had various problems and often felt very discouraged during most of her life. But this is completely normal – at least when human beings are concerned.

I vote for less celebrity worship and fewer big names. I’m for less hagiography and more biography. Let’s have a bit less polish and more humility and along with that love and acceptance of flawed heroes.

Below – Some examples of hagiography of, ahem, varying quality:


The problem with simple story-telling

The almost universal tendency of the missionaries to exaggerate their own importance and success in order to keep the economical contributions in Europe on a high level is usually not taken into account. The focus is on the missionary and the people they encounter are either characterized either as eager listeners, that is potential converts, or aggressive enemies, both categories promoting the supporters of the mission to send more funds and missionary personnel.

-Samuel Rubenson, The Interaction Between the Missionaries and the Orthodox: The Case of Abune Selama, p.74

Before I continue, I want to note that despite the negative tone of the quote above, I do not believe the author is scoffing at Christian missionary work and it is not my intention to do so either. In fact, I enthusiastically support the bulk of it. I am just trying to provide a bit more light on certain aspects of it as I study the interaction between Africa and the West.

The passage above points out one of the most fundamental problems with “narrative” (I put narrative in scare quotes only because of it’s over-use as of late). The problem is that good stories are spun – massively edited accounts. It’s the nature of the medium. Virtually every film that has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture was also at least nominated for Best Editing. True story. An 800-page academic biography and a 300-page thriller can have exactly the same subject matter and facts, but tell it in remarkably different ways. They each have their virtues and pitfalls.

But that’s the problem with spin and it affects our understanding of international cultures and churches as well. That’s why it’s not uncommon to hear conflicting accounts from the mission field. Were the Orthodox Christians really welcoming and hospitable or where they hostile and dangerous? Were the Muslims eager to hear the gospel or did they try to burn down the missionaries house? What about all the people inbetween these too poles? It turns out that MOST of the people were somewhere in the middle as to their response and opinion. There were lots of people that didn’t like the missionaries, but didn’t do anything in particular to stop or sabotage them. In the same way, there were plenty of people that came to Christ after years of work – they were not at all interested at first. These people’s stories aren’t often told though because they are slow and boring. But real life is slow and boring. The problem with journalism is that it nearly always goes for the easy-to color folks. Oh, sure maybe they have some nuance if given enough time but in short stories, most folks are still pretty well delineated as either heroes or villains. To tell a good story is a good thing, but it is also, often, a deceptive thing. Remember that there is always way more going on behind the scenes – most of it dull and tedious!

This is what’s missing from the Iron Man movies – Tony Stark spending weeks debugging the navigation sensors on his power suit due to some bad wiring and miscalibration. Can you imagine a sequel like that? Yawn. But it would be undeniably much more accurate.

Why am I interested in Ethiopia?


That is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. Why am I so interested in Africa and Ethiopia in particular? I’ve read everything I can get my hands on on the topic during the better part of the last year. And I’m not quite sure why. I’ve had several friends give me strange looks when I try to mumble an explanation. I think I can finally articulate some of it right now though.

If I am right in suggesting that what really distinguishes the modern missionary movement from its earlier predecessors is the fact that virtually all modern Western missionaries have been moulded to some extent by the assumptions of the Enlightenment, then the dialogue between Westernized Christians and those still largely shaped by the primal imagination is of the very greatest significance. Indeed Bediako may be correct in thinking that it will largely influence the role of Christianity in the twenty-first century. Ethiopia, with its long reception, experience and meditation upon the Christian Gospel and sacraments, is a most fruitful area in which to study and reflect upon the ongoing encounter between the primal imagination and the emissaries of the Enlightenment.

-Getatchew Haile, The Missionary’s Dream: An Ethiopian Perspective on Western Missions in Ethiopia, p.15

THIS right here is why I am really and truely fascinated with Africa, and Ethiopia in particular. This is it right here. I think that the Christianity of the global south (Africa, south Asia, and Latin America) is THE future of Christianity for the next century or many centuries. And I think that we in the north, in the West, have a lot to learn from them. I love theology but I don’t want to rehash Augustine or dig for some more nuggets hiding in Calvin’s Institutes or tear apart Romans from a better angle. I know there is still plenty of good work being done in these areas, but I’m just not the guy to do it. I can’t sustain my interest in that long enough to do a worthwhile job. I want to see what can be dug up in old Abyssinia, and what still lives on today in its faithful children and even its unfaithful but Christ-haunted children, whatever problems or confusions they may have. I think this holds a key part of the future of our race.

I don’t want to have the writing of software be my main productive contribution to humanity and society and to God’s people. Talk about short-lived – it lasts barely longer than the food in the refrigerator! But Christianity in Ethiopia has been percolating for two centuries and it’s still there in force. We’ve had it in America for 1/8th that time and it’s already on the serious decline. Maybe they know something we don’t. “Oh hell no! Of course not. They are backwards syncretic icon-kissing heretics! WE need to help them get with the program!” says the fat child of the enlightened West. I am not so sure. How has that been working out for us lately anyway? How about we turn the facet on the other way for a while.

This is why I was so excited to see bishops from Nigeria, Rwanda, and elsewhere sponsor and guide the conservative Anglican movement in the America during the past decade. Frankly, I’d like to see them remain involved. I’m not looking to follow their tradition – that is their lot. But I would like to see mine reformed so that it daily points more to Christ and less to myself.

Ways that Roman Catholic missionaries tried to hose the Ethiopian liturgy

Catholic Missionaries have never had much success in Ethiopia. Their crew still makes up less than 1% of the population. Ayele Teklehaymanot in his piece The Struggle for the “Ethiopianization” of the Roman Catholic Tradition details several ways in which the liturgy was (in his opinion and mine too) unnecessarily “Latinized”.

  • No display of the Tabot (replica ten commandments).
  • Using wafers instead of fresh baked bread.
  • Giving the people bread from the box instead of the table up front.
  • Not using near as much incense.
  • Using a crucifix with a sculpted Jesus on it instead of the traditional stylized Ethiopian cross.
  • Not going barefoot in the church to show that it was a holy place.
  • Having private low masses. The Ethiopian mass is always high (public with lots of personnel)
  • Relaxed fasting traditions, especially in the usually intense week before Easter.

And you thought arguing about whether to have guitars on Sunday was a problem. Ha! All these changes only served to alienate the local Ethiopians and defamiliarize them with the practices they grew up with. It’s no wonder they had trouble swallowing many of the teachings when the form was so disrupted.

Who is worthy of genocide?

In reading Philip Jenkin’s recent book Laying Down the Sword (which I have mixed feelings about), I made a list of all the different times Christian leaders have justified genocide by naming their enemies “Amalekites”. I’m not talking about just killing in self-defense or even conquest of foreign armies – I’m talking about (in many cases) the full-scale inhalation of women and children as well. But don’t worry, it’s all cool because these dudes are not just your average folk made in the image of God, they are “Amalekites”. You remember those guys that Joshua was commanded to wipe out? Well they’re back and it’s our job to finish what Joshua’s followers were chastised for not completing.

Who called their enemies Amalekites?

  • Charlemagne, versus the Saxons in 782
  • Pope Urban II, first crusade in 1095, against Muslims
  • John Knox, 1550s, Against British Catholics
  • Heinrich Bullinger, Swiss reformed theologian who legitimized this use
  • William Gouge, Thomas Barnes, Puritans, 1620-30s, against native Americans
  • Oliver Cromwell, 1650, against Irish Catholics
  • Cotton Mather, against American Indians, 1689
  • Dutch verses the Zulu in South Africa, 1838
  • Germans in 1904, against tribal people of Namibia. Killed all women and children.
  • Leaders of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 described the Tutsi people as Amalekites
  • Who’s next?

Ugg. This list is a nightmare – and from some folks who really should know better too. It makes me think that maybe, just maybe, those guys like John Howard Yoder are on to something when they suggest we Christians really need to just get out of this business.

Getting past tribalism

In the years since independence, a strong relationship had developed between church and state in Africa. Many African churches had gained African leadership long before that was the case in the political arena of their countries. That development had two important consequences. First, the church had become a learning place for democracy, at a time when there were no other places to express political opinions. So the church became, to a certain level, the cradle of the new, postcolonial Africa. That gave the church an important role in public life in Africa – almost at the same time as it lost that role in Europe.

Second, when the newly independent countries were looking for well-educated leadership that was up to the new political responsibilities, it was clear where they could find them: in the mission and church schools and universities. Many of the new political leaders had even studied, at least for a time, at theological seminaries for pastors and priests. When they discovered that their vocation lay elsewhere – namely, in the political field – the friendship with their former classmates and future religious leaders did not come to an end; they continued to share a common understanding of life in Africa. When these new leaders were later given the responsibility to develop a new society in their countries, it was obvious that they sought counsel from their friends, many of whom were now bishops and church presidents in offices not far from their own.

-G. Jan van Butselaar, The Role of Churches in the Peace Process in Africa: The Case of Mozambique Compared

The author goes on to discuss how by the 1990s, it was very apparent that most Africa postcolonial states had turned into complete disasters. Dictators and oppressors abounded and though the church remained strong and members numerous, the leaders often did not have the nerve to challenged it openly. Still, when things collapsed and the people demanded democracy, the Church was there in a position to facilitate a lot of the mediation – something that would be unheard of (and forbidden) in the secular West today.

This still makes me think again that perhaps blood and shared history/culture is often thicker than fresh faith. When push comes to shove, people will fall back not on their hard beliefs, but on their ethnic background. So we get warring Muslim tribes in Iraq regardless of who runs the state and African Christians refusing to openly call out their old friends who are now corrupt government officials. This is also why democrats in the southern United States can sometimes still win elections by appealing to the shared culture, place, and heritage of their constituents, even when they share little with regards to desired policy.

The Body of Christ must transcend tribalism. Christ comes to unite all people in all nations. Though Israel is chosen, the salvation of the outsiders is foreshadowed from very early on. What is the book of Acts but a case study in the dissolution of walls of race, class, ethnicity, and nationality, and (to some degree, gender)? Christ’s body is not divided. A corollary of that is that it does not participate in divisiveness. Are you setting neighbor against neighbor? Congratulations. You now know your work is NOT animated by the spirit of God.

On Ethiopian news sites that I sometimes follow, the comment threads are often filled with expatriates complaining about how the leaders (both in the government and the Orthodox church) only ever hire or appoint people from their own ethnic group or region. (“That ministry only ever hires people from Tigray. It’s not fair!”) This sort of nepotism casts a wider net than we are typically used to experiencing in the U.S., but elsewhere in the world it is often the norm. The smart and competent people are repeatedly passed over in favor of the comfortable option. That might mean increased loyalty and comradery in the short term, but at the expense of many other things over time.

Modernism tried to deal with the evils of nepotism by dehumanizing people. If they can be broken down into their elements and raw skills, then tribalism won’t get in the way, right? But blind robotic hiring committees have proven to usually be even worse. So what is the solution? I say it is to cultivate love for each other. That means ecumenicism. That means “getting along” is very high up on the priority list – over many other things. That means taking a risk and appointing the guy from the wrong side of the theological or cultural tracks. I believe the community-building powers of doing such a thing are worth the hassle it takes to get along with the outsider.

Our current forms of child sacrifice

Here, in this post (from an email newsletter a while back I think), Gil Bailie does an excellent job of pointing out how child sacrifice is alive and well in the West.

It shows up in two ways, both largely imperceptible. One is hard to see because it’s mostly invisible (abortion), the other, because it’s so slow (massive debt and servitude).

As Christianity [according to Rene Girard] has progressively crippled the elaborate moral ruses we use to camouflage the vestiges of the scapegoating system on which cultures continue to depend, we have sought out victims whose suffering is less morally troubling and/or less visible to us.The sexual revolution, for instance, demanded that sexuality be unrestrained by moral scruples and that it have no serious consequences. The hidden victims that made that regime possible were the unborn children, whose elimination was required if the regime was to be sustained.

What I would like to propose today is a corollary: The profligate and irresponsible “way of life” that we and our political representatives have just insisted on perpetuating in the so-called “fiscal cliff” debacle, has hidden victims: namely, our children and grandchildren, who will inherit, not only a crippling debt that they had no part in amassing, but a culture in moral and material ruin thanks to the irresponsibility and selfishness of their predecessors. We are reverting, along with the sexual revolutionaries, to child sacrifice, albeit in the present instance at least a less ghastly and less bloody form of it. Nevertheless it is shameful. We may be beyond the point at which we can fulfill the responsibility that was ours – to pass on to our children’s children the cultural blessings that were handed to us on a silver platter – but we should at least do what we can to lessen the weight of the burden that will fall on their shoulders.

It is true that our descendants may well rediscover a more robust form of Christian faith than an affluent society tends to foster. We can pray for that, but that possibility does nothing to relieve us of the responsibility we are currently woefully neglecting.

For the most part, the bulk of this child sacrifice is being initiated and sustained by selfish men. Yes, the woman may be complicit in her “choice” to eliminate her child, but this is nearly always done under the duress of men, be they boyfriends or fathers, or the ghosts of fathers. This is true of the second sort of “slow” sacrifice of our grandchildren. This comes about by ambitious men living for the moment and investing every cent in themselves. They have no inheritance to give and in fact it’s often an anti-inheritance, passing only debt and trouble on to their kin after death. Women have gotten in on the act too when, under the guise of equality or feminism, they try to emulate the nasty behaviors of men and steal from the same pot.

Just like the exposing of infants in the age of Rome, or screaming fires in the days of Molech, these abuses must be put to an end as well. They have hidden themselves so we will be less likely to stamp them out. I’m with Stanley Hauerwas when he said in an interview last year:

I say in a hundred years, if Christians are known as a strange group of people who don’t kill their children and don’t kill the elderly, we will have done a great thing.